Saved by books

Three academics – a medievalist, an early modernist and a modernist – take the reader on a journey through their intellectual worlds, using their own experiences to illuminate the literature they study. This new subgenre, one that might be dubbed the “Eng Lit memoir”, is a recent arrival in the larger field of life-writing, a model developed from other literature-life hybrids such as Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch (2015). Other roots lie in autobiographies that chart how reading can transform, even save, otherwise unhappy children, helping them to escape difficult circumstances, if only for a few hours – the Cornish working-class writer Natasha Carthew’s much-anticipated Undercurrent, for example. This new strain of life-writing comes with footnotes, recommendations for further reading and pronunciation guides; It understands itself both as memoir, as glimpses of a past, and as a collection of linked essays. Though autobiographical, it does not narrate a whole life. Beyond telling the tale of a self, these books have other designs on the reader.

Jonathan Bate’s and Elizabeth Boyle’s accounts both begin with a significant loss. Bate first encountered Shakespeare in his father’s red-covered pocket New Temple edition, an edition that he inherits when his father dies suddenly. Amid the shock, the guilt and the realization that the signs of an incipient heart attack were clear in retrospect, the young Bate reaches for Shakespeare, finding comfort in King Lear‘s epitaphs for the old king, whose heart “burst smilingly”, yet of whom Kent urges, “Vex not his ghost! O let him pass.” “If you have the patience to persevere with him, Shakespeare will give you the words”, Bate says. This opening anticipates the book’s themes: the centrality of Shakespeare to the author’s scholarship, the lovingly recollected teachers at his progressive grammar school, the work of editing plays and manys with the great actors and directors of our time. This is not a straightforward autobiographical account: Bate’s schooldays seem to last for a long time, university is speedily dealt with and the ensuing years are more patchily narrated until the book reaches its climax in the emergency room signaled by the subtitle. His five-year-old daughter’s life-threatening illness, kidney failure and the agonizing wait for a transplant bring the story to a close; a coda reassures us that Ellie has grown up well and happy. A final vignette features the family dog ​​in a student production of Twelfth Night at Worcester College, Oxford, where Bate was provost until 2019.

Bate weaves his readings of Shakespeare – as of Johns Donne and Clare, and Samuel Johnson – into the dramatist’s lightly sketched career, engaging informatively with his life and theatrical history. To Bate’s surprise, his father left a series of notes of the productions and Shakespeare films that he had seen in that set of little red books. These cue Bate’s own conversations with Ian McKellen and Kenneth Branagh, juxtaposed with his vivid recollections of legendary productions – Peter Brook’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1970), of course – and the earliest productions that I, too, saw as a student: Deborah Warner’s Titus Andronicus with Brian Cox, and the splendid Antony and Cleopatra with Alan Howard and Glenda Jackson. “I hope lots of English teachers read [this] and take heart”, says one of the cover blurbs; Indeed, the book’s central achievement is to affirm the value of enthusiastic and knowledgeable literature teaching at school as formative, not only in shaping a career, but also in creating the inner resources that can be drawn on in a crisis; Shakespeare as a lifelong and enriching alternative to religious faith.

Elizabeth Boyle’s father’s death is not a shock: the family are gathered at his hospital bedside, but Boyle and her brother have gone to get coffee. As her brother tips endless sachets into his americano, Boyle mutters: “If Dad dies while you’re adding all these fucking sugars I will never speak to you again.” By the time they return her father has died. That comic flash in the midst of seriousness is typical of Boyle’s style. Where Bate reached for King Lear, Boyle seizes on a phrase from an anonymous medieval Irish lament, “my heart is a clot of blood”, and cites an eighth-century poem in which all Creation responds to the Crucifixion: “The whole world grew dark / the land shook under gloom/…great rocks broke asunder”. The combination of irreverence, allusion and intense, if sometimes contradictory, emotion both anticipates the fierceness with which Boyle lives her life and echoes the intensity and strangeness of medieval Irish poetry. In structural termsFierce Appetites is a journal of the first Covid-19 year (2020), a kind of autobiography and an intriguing introduction to medieval Irish literature, history and culture.

Boyle’s life conforms to the “child saved by books” model. With her strong Irish identity, troubled childhood, complex family background and survivor’s instinct (a traumatic event, early on, is hinted at but not recounted), Boyle gets herself from an ordinary comp into Glasgow University, where she studies medieval Celtic, then on to Cambridge and her current post teaching medieval Irish history in Maynooth. Her life has been turbulent, and she recounts her adventures, friendships, drinking, sexual relationships, hopes and fears with candour. The book’s journal strand manages to eschew the conventions of Covid memoir: Boyle does not discover the beauties of nature, take up baking, exercise her way into slender cheerfulness or adopt a rescue dog. Resolutions to drink less break down, and she stays up all night watching movies or playing games. Yet this downplays the seriousness with which she writes first a long-delayed academic monograph, then Fierce Appetites itself. The book is shaped by the thoughtfulness, passion and energy that inform her teaching, as she interprets her own life through the medieval texts that illuminate each chapter, from “Loss and Mothers” at the start of the year to “Love and Memory” towards the end.

Boyle has strong views on the strangeness and moral distinctiveness of Irish literature: Queen Medb of Connacht, the villain of the Irish epic poem The Tain, is not, as some would have it, a “feminist icon”, but “an infuriatingly idiotic bitch”, “bad, faithless, impulsive and selfish”. Medb’s willingness to offer her daughter to the next hero willing to take on the champion Cú Chulainn is contrasted with the tenderness expressed in a lyrical lullaby for the baby Jesus, imagined as a noble fosterling, consigned to the speaker’s care as a mark of honor. These depictions form a jumping-off point for one of the book’s most devastating chapters, in which Boyle considers her mother’s abandonment of her as a toddler to her father’s care, her stepmother’s tireless efforts to hold together (and love) a blended family, and Boyle’s decision to leave her own daughter, aged six, with the girl’s father in order to take up a “dream job in Ireland”; she took her “metaphorical baseball bat and smashed it [the family] to smithereens”. Maybe post-natal depression was still in play, maybe too her own childhood abandonment, but “I was also just a selfish asshole, no bones about it'”.

She leaves us on the eve of 2021, a year that brought both new hopes and renewed disappointments, with a meditation on memory and forgetting: the impossibility of Ireland forgetting its past and the British fixation with lost imperial glory. Finally she brings together the double driving forces of these essays. Past traumas can be displaced, she avers, either by drowning oneself in alcohol or by immersing oneself in books, in tales of the joys and sufferings of others. Characteristically, drinking and reading are presented as equally viable, equally pleasurable. As the plague year draws to its end, we return unironically and hopefully to the book’s beginning, and Elizabeth Boyle’s father’s last words to his daughter: “Happy New Year”.

Christina Lupton teaches modern English literature at Warwick and Copenhagen Universities. Her story begins in 2018, watching her son at a Danish swimming pool while thinking about the new introduction she has undertaken to write for an edition of Pride and Prejudice, and how she intends to approach the novel through the different kinds of love in Jane Austen’s world. What love is, what kinds of loves there are, in life and in novels, is Lupton’s topic. She refracts it through the books she teaches, recounting her rackety, bohemian Australian childhood, her relatively unventful academic career, then the sudden upending of everything when she passionately falls in love with Shannon, an American literary scholar. Both women are steeped in postmodern theory, versed in arguments as to whether “love sits deep in the individual or whether it’s merely a script inserting us into a world that’s already decided”. Lupton, too, will take Boyle’s metaphorical baseball bat to her family in pursuit of that love, charting the ways in which long-term married love, adulterous passion, love of children, of friends, and the models for love that our parents provide us with, all play out in the life she has lived hitherto and the decisions she now makes. Her commitment to the new relationship is tested – there’s a medical emergency as compelling as Bate’s daughter’s. Here, just as Bate draws strength from Shakespeare, the novels Lupton reads and teaches become resources for thinking and feeling her way through her new unexpected reality and the constraints of the pandemic.

Lupton’s annotated reading list covers a good deal of ground, from Madame de Lafayette’s seventeenth-century novel La Princesse de Clèves right up to Ocean Vuong’s debut novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (2019). It’s forty-seven books long – twenty-four of them written by women. Her annotations are quirky and subjective: Jane Eyre is a “duck-rabbit of a novel, to be read once as the story of a wronged and neglected child, and then, at least one more time, from the perspective of an adult who knows more about the world and can see that child within it.” Deservedly short shrift is given to Mr Rochester.

How engrossing readers will find these three memoirs will depend in part on their interest in the relevant literature, but also on their being persuaded by the embedded drama of the life in question, the skill of the writing and the attractiveness of the literary persona. I’d take Boyle’s wit, passion and honesty over Bate’s more predictable story of the grammar-school boy who discovers Shakespeare, but I’ll be tackling Lupton’s reading list too. Academic writing traditionally demands the effacement of the author; it’s the arguments, not the arguer, that matter. This kind of writing, by contrast, allows scholars to step out from behind the lectern; to educate, confess, reminisce and make themselves heard as passionate, feeling subjects.

Carolyne Larrington is Professor of Medieval European Literature at the University of Oxford. Her books include Winter Is Coming: The medieval world of “Game of Thrones”2015, and The Norse Myths2017

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